Renewal Comes from the Desert
by Fr. Ian Dalgleish


'PARISH LIFE IS ESSENTIALLY DEAD,' a senior Vatican official is quoted as saying, in a recent Time magazine report on the decline of religion in Europe. This may sound rather sweeping, but one can certainly ask whether the parish system as we know it has outlived its usefulness as a means of handing on a living Christian faith. The truth is that, despite the exuberant official propaganda and the dozens of programmes of parish revitalization currently being marketed, many Catholic parishes are no longer real communities based on a recognisable shared faith and bound in spiritual solidarity by the Eucharist. They have degenerated instead into a sort of social club, or cultural association, an outlet for people's spare time and energy.
One detects among many congregations today a certain lack of earnestness, a lack of passion and a curious shallowness and ignorance. At least as far as their understanding of the faith is concerned, ordinary Catholics often appear bewildered and disorientated by the powerful secular currents to which they are exposed. Certainly there is no great movement of resistance or criticism. Even - maybe especially - the new class of church activists and collaborators seem to lack a clear sense of the Church's real purpose and vocation. The growing pressure to invite all-comers to attend Mass and receive Communion - arising from a mixture of ecumenical relativism and sentimentality - is the single greatest example of this lack.
The problem is exacerbated in turn by bureaucratic schemes borrowed from the secular world, which concentrate exclusively on the organisational facets of the Church, rather than addressing more basic priorities: deepening of faith, understanding of the content of faith and being shaped by it, prayer, discipleship, growing into Christ.
Official pronouncements trumpet the erection of new and ever-more complex church structures, but the need for personal spiritual maturity and asceticism - which only means training and self-discipline in the spiritual life - is rarely highlighted. This may help to explain the noticeable levels of pettiness, over-sensitivity and bad temper which mark parish affairs. Some things haven't changed much since the days when Saint Paul felt obliged to rebuke his own communities for their unspiritual attitudes!
Priests engaged in the ordinary care of parishes cannot avoid the impression that the Church is seen by many Catholics - including, I think we would have to say, many church leaders - as a purely human institution, to be tinkered-with, redefined and reorganised according to a variety of pet notions or 'policies'. There appears to be little understanding, at parish level or on official committees, of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, a mystery and part of the order of grace, the means of mediating God's life and drawing us into that life.
As in all ages, especially in times of decay and spiritual decadence, there is a need in the contemporary Church not for new 'structures', but for more radical, prophetic ways of living the Christian faith, especially on the part of clergy and religious. We need to find ways of expressing unambiguous, uncompromised commitment to the transcendent values of our faith and to the reality of our destiny beyond this world, refusing to become mired in pragmatic and this-worldly concerns.
Our circumstances today call for a renewal of what we might term monastic priorities and a retrieval of the traditional themes of monastic spirituality, which in any case are only radicalised Christian themes and priorities. These, I would suggest, are:
- 'poverty' and simplicity of life - a counter-witness to modern greed, acquisitiveness, consumerism and the technocratic, utilitarian philosophy of life. Detachment, or non-attachment, to people and things, a surrendering of the desire to control and to impose one's will. This attitude of simplicity and non-attachment is at the opposite end of the spiritual pole from all the violence and aggression in modern life, which is rooted in the frustration of our desire to possess and control.
- distinctive Christian protest against today's materialism and loss of transcendence, which is also a positive witness to the reality of God and our vocation to live with God in eternity. There is a need for a vocation of protest against the dominant belief-system and values of capitalism, and against a bureaucratic-managerial Church enculturated to and merely reflecting these same beliefs and values. This takes the form of a positive witnessing-to the ethos of the Kingdom which is not of this world, and a way of life determined by the principles and orientations of the Sermon on the Mount.
- prayer, contemplation, reading of Scripture and assimilating the great wisdom of our Christian Tradition - i.e. finding God and becoming immersed more deeply in the mystery of God in a society where for most people (and in the Church, effectively) 'God is dead'. Above all we must attempt to grapple with and make sense of the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of our salvation achieved by Jesus' life, work, death and resurrection. Christianity is not a religion of human self-worth and fulfilment, as exemplified by the New Age spiritualities, and those who attempt to construe it as such are always the first to fall away.
- dedication to the transcendent God as against the self-regarding, human-centred outlook and the purely this-worldly perspective which is widespread today, and which has also hugely infiltrated the Church, masquerading as practical Christian ministry/action. God doesn't want impressive worldly achievements but a pure heart, dedicated to him. The Bible tells us that God is happier with the prayers and the self-effacing service of those who opt to live in obscurity and insignificance, who achieve nothing in worldly terms, than he is with the grandiose and egocentric plans of the pharisees and the bigwigs.
- silence, solitude, spiritual depth as against our modern society's extraordinary amount of noise, chatter and superficial human encounters and relationships. Shallowness, distraction, a lack of concentration, the inability to cope with silence and solitude - all defining features of our society - are great victories for the devil, because they are habits of mind and behaviour which make us blind and deaf to the hidden presence of God.
In times of crisis in the Church's history, renewal has come from the margins, from the desert. So what has been the historical meaning of withdrawal to the desert? What are the traditional motives? I would suggest the following brief list:
(i) a more single-minded search for God. 'Time is ours', said St Bernard, 'only that we may find God';
(ii) a flight from/protest against a society and a Church that has pushed God aside and exalted humanity and human priorities instead;
(iii) the refusal to collude in myths and fictions, especially in the Church. Today this would encompass all the noisy forms of church activism, all the pointless and shallow busyness, which cover a vacuum, a sense of panic, a lack of faith;
(iv) making the Reign of God a reality even if just in ourselves - openness to God's grace, pursuing holiness of life, hopefully radiating something of this to others, if God brings us into contact with them in an opportune way;
(v) a recovery of the ascetic principle - recognising that the appropriate response on our part to God's saving mercy is a spirit of penance and self-discipline. Self-aggrandisement in all its forms only stunts our spiritual growth and makes us frustrated, loveless and joyless. Asceticism, by contrast, clears away the obstacles which prevent us from being transfigured by God's grace.
(vi) raising a standard - God's standard.
I believe that the buds of genuine renewal will only start to appear when we restore these priorities to their proper place in our own spiritual lives and in the life of the whole Church. As during past ages, and in past movements of reform, it is a movement forward, a movement of progress. But the first and necessary stage is often, as it were, a step backward: a retreat into the desert.


Notes and References
'If change is to come, it will come from the margins...it was the desert, not the temple, that gave us the prophets' Wendell Berry, quoted in Where are the Priest-Prophets?, by Fr Owen O'Sullivan, p. 38, The Furrow, January 2003;
'Parish life is essentially dead' quoted in O Father, Where Art Thou? by Jeff Chu, p.24, Time Magazine (European edition) June 16th, 2003;
'Sadly, it seems they [present-day English Catholics] have become a rather cosy and unchallengingly domesticated denomination. In this process, it seems likely that the new, younger generations of cradle Catholics have substantially lost an awareness, and hence a pride in, their historical roots. There is a weakened sense of a distinctive community, evoking a sense of identity and commitment'. Michael Hornby Smith in Catholics in England 1950 - 2000, p. 304.
'Long before the coming of Christ, humanity's quest for the Absolute gave rise in various religious traditions to expressions of monastic life. The many different forms of monastic and ascetical life throughout the centuries bear witness to the divine destiny of the human person and to the presence of the Spirit in the hearts of all who seek to know what is true and ultimately real. There is a "monastic" dimension in every human life which the monk witnesses and affirms, just as every Christian call witnesses to that dimension present interiorly in every other Christian'. From the Introduction to the Rule for Camaldolese Benedictine Oblates, i.e. lay people who share as far as possible in the spirituality of the Camaldolese Benedictine monks.